Can you name a great scientist who had a pet? History buffs might think of Isaac Newton and his dog Diamond, but Diamond is probably just a legend. Many great scientists did have pets: here are ten examples.
10 Tycho Brahe’s Tame Elk or Moose
Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was a wealthy nobleman from Denmark and is best-known for his high-quality astronomical observations of the stars and planets. Those observations (written down) helped Johannes Kepler formulate his three laws of planetary motion.
For some reason, Tycho had a tame elk. Or maybe it was a moose; it depends which book you read. The elk came up in some letters Tycho wrote to William IV of Hesse-Kassel. He was arranging to trade the elk for one of William’s riding horses, but problems arose:
“[Tycho] got the animal to the estate of his niece’s husband, but before he could ship it, the elk walked up some steps to the manor house and drank so much beer that it broke a leg going down the steps again and died.”
William already had a tame elk that “followed him like a dog.” That seems dangerous; one wrong move and an antler pokes your eye. Maybe Tycho was happy to get rid of his elk.
9 Charles Darwin’s Pet Dogs
Charles Darwin (1809–1882) needs little introduction. His research and writings on evolution are a cornerstone of modern biology. It will probably come as no surprise that he had pet dogs. His son Francis wrote:
“In my memory there were only two dogs which had much connection with my father. One was a large black and white half-bred retriever, called Bob, to which we, as children, were much devoted… But the dog most closely associated with my father was… Polly, a rough, white fox-terrier. She was a sharp-witted, affectionate dog; when her master was going away on a journey, she always discovered the fact by the signs of packing going on in the study, and became low-spirited accordingly.” (from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin)
Darwin mentioned his dogs in his books. For example:
“When my terrier bites my hand in play, often snarling at the same time, if he bites too hard and I say GENTLY, GENTLY, he goes on biting, but answers me by a few wags of the tail, which seems to say ‘Never mind, it is all fun.’” (from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)
8 James Clerk Maxwell’s Pet Dogs
James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) was a Scottish physicist who is best-known for formulating “Maxwell’s Equations.” Einstein said, “This change in the conception of reality [due to Maxwell] is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”
Great, but did Maxwell have pets?
“[He] was rarely seen walking without a dog accompanying him, and, when visiting the Laboratory for a short time, Toby or Coonie, or both, would always attend him… On one occasion Toby sat quietly on an insulating support, and allowed himself to be rubbed with a cat skin… it was found that the dog became positively electrified…” (from The Life of James Clerk Maxwell)
If you go to the eastern end of George Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, you’ll find a statue of Maxwell. He’s seated in a chair and holding a color wheel. There at his feet is his faithful dog Toby. (Toby’s breed wasn’t recorded; the sculptor used an Irish Terrier as a model.)
7 Ludwig Boltzmann’s Pets
Ludwig Boltzmann (1844–1906) was one of the most important physicists of the 19th century. He showed how the bulk properties of matter, such as thermal conductivity or specific heat, arise from the small scale properties of the individual atoms.
When Boltzmann was a professor in Graz, he and his family lived on a farm in the countryside. Every day at noon, his pet dog, a German Shepherd, would walk from the farm into town and meet him for lunch. They’d go to a pub where Boltzmann would eat his lunch and the dog would lie at his feet.
Boltzmann had five children. At one point, his youngest daughter wanted a pet monkey, but her mother didn’t like indoor pets. As a solution, he got his daughter a few rabbits and put them in a special cage in his library.
6 Alexander Graham Bell’s Family Dog
Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) is most-associated with the telephone, but he was also a scientist with diverse interests. When he was 16 years old, his father took him and his brothers to see a rudimentary “mechanical man” which could make sounds like a human voice. When they got home, he and his brothers made one of their own! Then Bell did something bizarre or inspired, depending on your point of view: he trained the family dog—a Skye Terrier named Trouve—to growl on cue. By manipulating the dog’s mouth and throat, he was able to make it say “ow, ah, ooh, ga, ma, ma,” which sounded a bit like “How are you Grandma?” Apparently the neighbors were delighted.
Bell went on to become an expert on human speech and hearing. In fact, he became professor of the mechanism of speech in Boston University’s School of Oratory. He also invented a practical telephone.
5 Sigmund Freud’s Pet Dogs
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is famous for his work in psychiatry and neurology, especially for founding psychoanalysis. He also had pet dogs.
It all started with his daughter Anna, who shared an office with him in Vienna. She had a German Shepherd named Wolfand Freud liked it. One of Anna’s friends gave Freud a Chow named Lun Yug (or Lün-Yu) when he was 72. Sadly, only 15 months later, Lun Yug was lost at a Salzburg train station and found dead a few days later. It took Freud a while to get over that, but once he did, he got another Chow named Jofi (or Yofi).
“[Jofi] was Freud’s constant companion, sitting at the food of his consultation couch while analysis was in session, panting away rhythmically… Freud adored his dog: after Freud underwent an especially painful surgery, he wrote… ‘I wished you could have seen with me what sympathy Jofi shows me during these hellish days, as if she understood everything.’” (from The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days)
Jofi died seven years later, of a heart attack following a surgery. Freud did get another dog, a Chow named Lun (or Lün).
4 Albert Einstein’s Pets
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) is best-known for his contributions to physics, particularly relativity. And yes, he had some pets.
Because of his fame, there are many bizarre (but untrue) stories about Einstein’s pets, including one that has him (or Isaac Newton) cutting two holes in every door of his apartment: a small one for small cats and a bigger one for big cats. I guess people like stories of smart people doing silly things.
A reliable Einstein biography says that Einstein had “…a parrot named Bibo, who required an unjustifiable amount of medical care; a cat named Tiger; and a white terrier named Chico that had belonged to the Bucky family.” (from Einstein: His Life and Universe)
Einstein’s parrot was a birthday present. He would try to cheer it up by telling bad jokes. This is according to the diary of his barber, Johanna Fantova, so skepticism is prudent.
3 Edwin Hubble’s Pet Cat
Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) was an American astronomer who found evidence that the universe is expanding. The Hubble Space Telescope is named after him.
He and his wife Grace had a black part-Persian cat. It was named Nicolas Copernicus after the famous astronomer. Hubble would refer to his home as “Nicolas’ Estate.” Apparently Nicolas enjoyed playing with pipe cleaners, so they were scattered all over the house. Nicolas would often perch at the window, waiting for Hubble to return home.
Grace Hubble wrote in her diary, “When [Edwin] worked in the study at his big desk, Nicolas solemnly sprawled over as many pages as he could cover. … When he sat on [Edwin’s] lap, he purred differently…”
The Huntington Library has many photos of Hubble; few show him smiling, but there’s one photo in which he’s holding Nicolas and “…we see the hint of a smile and a gleam of amusement in [Hubble’s] eyes…”
2 Louis and Mary Leakey’s Pets
Louis (1903–1972) and Mary Leakey (1913–1996) were a British couple whose tool and fossil discoveries in East Africahelped found paleoanthropology (the science of ancient humans).
The Leakeys got four Dalmatians in 1938, after thieves ransacked their camp at Hyrax Hill (an excavation site in Kenya). The dogs often accompanied the Leakeys during digs, both for companionship and for protection (against thieves and wild animals). One was known for biting people Mary didn’t like, even if Mary had “given no outward sign.”
The Leakeys didn’t stop at four Dalmatians; when visitors came to their home in Nairobi,
“It was not a quiet household they stepped into: five Dalmatians bounded up in greeting, little duikers stepped daintily from room to room, hyraxes cowered behind the toilet, an African eagle owl peered from its nest on top of a cupboard, and Simon, the mischievous Sykes monkey, chattered bright-eyed from his perch on the couch.” (from Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings by Virginia Morell)
They also had tanks of fish, a cage of American rattlesnakes, and two brick-lined pits for the python and the vipers. Oh, and don’t forget the civet cat.
1 Richard Feynman’s Pet Dogs
Richard Feynman (1918–1988) was an American physicist known for his contributions to quantum theory. He was also involved with the Manhattan Project and the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
His daughter Michelle wrote that he, “…often sketched in places other than his study: he would draw our dog sleeping in the living room, a man waiting for a plane… Several of Papa’s [artistic] models became family friends… One model gave us one of our favorite dogs (her name was Venus — the dog, that is).” (from The Art of Richard P. Feynman)
Murray Gell-Mann (a physicist colleague) wrote about a time that he and his wife visited the Feynman house in Altadena, California: “We also met the dog (called Venus, I believe) and found that Richard was going overboard teaching her tricks… Meanwhile, he had the dog racing around the house, up and down the stairs…” (from Physics Today, February 1989)